Zinsser on Friday

No Degrees of Separation

By William Zinsser | August 28, 2011


Our oldest grandchild is going off to college next week, and his mother, like mothers in every corner of the land, is contending with a lot of pain. How did time so suddenly accelerate? During the long journey of parenthood it often seems that the day when the first child leaves for college is so far off that it will never arrive. Then, one day, it does.

But the mother of our grandson will not go into the parting moment unsupported. His college has scheduled a full day of orientation talks, conspicuously including sessions of separation counseling for the parents, who otherwise might never leave. Those sessions are called “Letting Go.”

Letting go is not a trait commonly associated with boomer moms and dads. Theirs is the generation for whom sociologists coined the term “helicopter parents”–a reference to their ceaseless hovering and whirring over the lives of their children. A growing number of colleges now offer a day of umbilical-cord-severing therapy. Parents are strictly required to be off campus by 5 p.m. On many campuses, however, they have been spotted several days later at the college’s opening ceremony, sitting in the auditorium, still helicoptering.

Remember back when kids just got sent off to college? My Iowa wife, bound for her freshman year at Oberlin, where she had never set foot, caught a ride with some neighbors who were driving east and who dropped her off at her dormitory. At Oberlin, unimpeded by parental advice and visitation, she grew into the woman she was supposed to become and never looked back. Her parents got on with their lives.

When she and I later became parents I could hardly stand the thought of our daughter Amy going away to college. But remarkably soon she was home for Thanksgiving; I survived. I have no memory of driving her to college, and I only dimly recall visiting her two or three times, chatting with inscrutable roommates in cluttered student rooms. When our son John was at college we almost never telephoned him. If we did, his roommates invariably said, “He’s at the library.” We chose to believe it. Without our help he got an education that has since served him broadly as an artist and a teacher.

During the 1970s I was master of Branford College at Yale and could observe the annual arrival of our freshmen. What I saw were fathers performing labors that would make an actuary wince, lugging up many flights of stairs the possessions that their sons and daughters had brought to college to lubricate their education: hi-fi players, speakers, amplifiers, crates of LP records, books, posters, guitars, cellos, bicycles, house plants, waterbeds. (Today all the electronic gear could be carried upstairs in the palm of a hand.) Having discharged their historic function as porters, the parents were free to leave, and they soon did, administering separation counseling to each other on the drive home.

Except in emergencies I didn’t see or hear from those parents again for four years, when, at commencement, I handed their children their diplomas. I had watched those long-ago freshmen stumble and pick themselves up and develop into interesting young men and women; that was the great satisfaction of the job. At the college we were left to play our traditional role of acting in loco parentis. The parents in turn took up their traditional role of creating interesting new lives of their own.

Today I wouldn’t want the job. By definition in loco parentis means that the parents are somewhere else; they have left the loco. Now they are electronically present at all hours, peppering their children–and the college’s administrators–with cell-phone calls, e-mail messages, text messages, tweets, and cameo appearances on Facebook.

Hey, parents! Leave your kids alone! They’re at the library.

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